Pack Your Bags!
Plastic bags accompany just about every purchase we make — even for an item we could easily carry out without one. The numbers are staggering: U.S. consumers annually use approximately 380 billion plastic bags to transport purchased goods for an average of only 12 minutes!
After those dozen minutes, what happens? Bags that are properly disposed of can take hundreds of years to break down in landfills. Discarded ones often end up strewn through streets, entangled in trees, and floating down waterways. Not only does this plastic bag litter detract from public park and beach vistas, but they also clog storm drains and endanger wildlife.
Single-use plastic bags that lodge in storm drains hinder stormwater conveyance and treatment systems. Blockages in pipes lead to local flooding and enable contaminants to enter our groundwater. Plastic bags drawn into sewer systems end up in wastewater treatment plants. There they cause damage to equipment and require taxpayer dollars to clean out and repair the infrastructure.
Marine animals such as sea turtles mistake floating plastic bags for natural food sources like jellyfish and squid. Once consumed, a single plastic bag can cause starvation (it cannot be digested and it prevents the animal from obtaining nutrition from other food sources). Birds are also increasingly ingesting plastics. A recent study estimates that nine out of 10 of the world’s seabirds have plastic bits in their bellies from bags and other sources.
Plastic bags will decompose to a certain extent but are ultimately not biodegradable. Plankton, shellfish, and other small fish consume tiny plastic particles of broken-down bags. Pesticides and organic pollutants tend to adhere to these microplastics, get stored in marine organisms’ cells and tissues, and bioaccumulate up the food chain where larger animals, including humans, may consume harmful levels of chemicals.
Many communities in the U.S. and around the world have recognized this growing issue and are putting laws in place to combat the problem. Many communities in the U.S. and around the world have recognized this growing issue and are putting laws in place to combat the problem such as requiring stores to charge a fee for each carryout bag (implementation may be delayed to allow stores to deplete their remaining supply of bags and to educate the public about the change).
The goal of these laws is not to collect the fee but to change habits without hitting people’s wallets too hard. Paper bags were also included in the laws because, if given the option, shoppers would simply switch from plastic to paper, and overall waste would not diminish. Environmentalists and legislators believe it is reasonable to ask the public to bring their own bags when they go shopping. Reusable bags are readily available; in fact, many stores sell them at a nominal price right near the register. Switching to reusable bags can prevent the use of hundreds of single-use bags per person each year and, in addition, many of these sturdier bags hold more items and don’t need doubling like flimsy plastic bags.
Not surprisingly, opposition to the legislation came from the plastic bag industry and from resistant storeowners. Readers may remember that there was significant resistance to the introduction of the New York State Returnable Container Law of 1982, which required consumers and retailers to pay a deposit on certain containers sold in their stores. People weren’t happy about the nickel per container and beverage distributors resented the added hassle of collecting returnables but the law has become commonplace, keeping a tremendous amount of bottle and can litter out of the environment.
How do individuals make the transition to reusable bags a painless process? Try reminding yourself to pack your reusable bags before you go shopping by writing a note on the top of your grocery list. Keep a few bags tucked in your car for an impromptu stop at the store, or say “No thanks” when offered a bag for a few items. Making a conscious effort to introduce reusable bags into our routines will have a meaningful impact on our environment.
By Jennifer McGivern